Bag of Squirrels

June 05, 2021

Written by: Bro. Brian Poulin

Memorial of St. Boniface, Bishop and Martyr

We inhabit a point in time at which many of us can imagine the COVID-19 pandemic receding into memory. Of course, there are ways in which it will always remain with us: the premature loss of loved ones, altered norms and habits, challenges to both physical and mental health, and economic setbacks for many. Yet, in some ways, we are indeed beginning to move on.

Mount St. Michael Academy in the Bronx is among the many Catholic schools that suspended its overnight retreat programs throughout the year. As vaccination rates increase and infection prevalence decreases however, students have once more had the opportunity to participate in year-level retreats, albeit on campus and during normal instructional hours. Most of the programming has been outside, students have been masked while in close quarters, and hand sanitizer has been on standby for use as necessary. I have been blessed with the opportunity to assist the campus minister in facilitating these experiences. Most of these voluntary retreats have had few participants: a mere handful of seniors, up to a dozen or so sophomores. Then, all of a sudden, we get nearly 40 squirrely freshmen.


Normally, this would feel like a great number for a retreat. Large enough to have plenty of energy and demonstrate clear student interest, small enough for a single experienced adult to supervise alone for short durations. This time felt large however.

All of a sudden, there were too many students for me to learn everybody’s name (though I did my best). And they were freshman. Not shy, beginning-of-the-year, playing it safe freshmen, but rather end-of-the-year, sick of school, and rambunctious freshmen. These were freshmen who were suddenly experiencing the most social stimulation they’d had in more than a year, many of whom had not experienced the normal socialization and structures that would have helped them mature and grow in discipline over nearly two semesters at Mount. They were freshmen who still seemed like they belonged in the junior high.

God’s grace was with us. None of the adults raised our voices throughout the day, though we were at times provoked. We had many occasions to gently correct but never resorted to punishment. Our founder, St. Marcellin Champagnat, famously said that, “to educate children you must first love them, and love them all equally.” I’ve always found this a high ideal to aspire to, but more difficult than I would care to admit in practice—some kids are just difficult! On this day, it worked however. Some students were occasionally oppositional, undoubtedly accustomed to butting heads with their teachers. Yet we adults were able to redirect, diffuse, and re-engage them at other times in other ways. Even the students with the hardest edges gradually became friendly and open to correction once they saw that we weren’t interested in fighting or blaming them. In short, I was very happy with myself, even as I counted my blessings that I wasn’t trying to put this particular crew to bed during ‘lights out’ at our retreat facility.

As pleased with myself as I was though, I couldn’t help but recognize that if I were teaching some of these characters in a normal school year, sleep-deprived, and with a curriculum to get through, I would have had much greater difficulty similarly avoiding conflict. I don’t know whether or not I have truly become more patient over the past year or so—for that you would have to ask the brothers I live with—but I do know where my patience has tended to give out in the past. Perhaps the grace of yesterday lay in recognizing with greater clarity the difficult context these students were coming from, and taking responsibility for my own reactions in a way that is sometimes easier said than done. These boys on their way to becoming young men aren’t at fault for the adversity that has shaped them. They bring themselves as they are. My job is simply to model Christ’s love for them in a brotherly way—to love them regardless of how good they may or may not be, while encouraging them to become better as necessary.

It’s such a blessing to celebrate days where that seems to work.


This week’s “ear candy” is a classic and raucous bit of rock and roll history that illustrates the chaotic energies that can emerge from a troubled upbringing—perhaps not entirely irrelevant to the experience of the young people we encounter these days. What would it be like to consistently lead with empathy when engaging our youth? The “brain food” is a short article about the social challenges presented to young people by the pandemic and some thoughts on addressing them.

Ear Candy: “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” by The Rolling Stones

Brain Food: “Socialization and School: Kids Are Missing Out on More than Academics” by Exchange Family Center

Come back on the first Saturday of next month for a new post!